S'mores epitomise cooking improvised in the great outdoors, conjuring dreams of open fires and open roads.
An open flame and an open road … dream on
S'mores - a campground stalwart and a generally adored hot mess of graham cracker, toasted marshmallow and squares of melting chocolate - was where my understanding of campfire cuisine began and ended.
At the risk of getting myself into trouble with s'mores fans, my inner purist admits to viewing s'mores as a classic example of good things combining to create something that's less than the sum of its parts.
Though less is often more, s'mores, true to their name, are the essence of lily-gilding. My sister loves to assemble them at home using a microwave for the marshmallows and nutella in place of the traditional Hershey's bar, but I call it sacrilege. What is a s'more if not for the toasty, blackened flakes of smouldering sugar, the wisps of caramel-scented smoke?
"At the very least, use a toaster oven," I'd plead. But good sense falls on deaf ears after the s'more has cast its spell.
I daydream about a lot of things that are out of reach: world peace, better hand-eye coordination and an ability to communicate effortlessly with my dog. Some of my longest-running fantasies involve adventures on an open road, cooking on an open fire and eating off paper plates.
Time has delayed some daydreams in favour of others. The original version of my fantasy food-crawl caravan was formulated with a school friend while bouncing on a trampoline in a junior gym class. The plan involved three of us driving from Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Syria to Turkey to Greece to Italy to France to Spain in an old but good first-generation Range Rover we would miraculously manage both to acquire and to soup up for the expedition.
Our adolescent idealism was the rose-tinted window on that car ride to freedom, shielding us from whatever realities of danger, disease and acute unrest might have been raging along the way at the time. In deference to this, we replaced Saudi Arabia with Iran before shifting the mission to the back burner while prepping for more immediate goals, like high school.
I volunteered to be the mobile cook for the journey, and took to writing menus in preparation. Like many things that look fine on paper, these imaginary itineraries and their accompanying menus ran low on the feasibility scale.
Oddly enough, given my obsession with cooking, I own neither a toaster oven nor an outdoor grill. I use my gas stove for everything I cook in the absence of an open flame, in spite of the fact that some of my favourite foods are exponentially improved after direct contact with fire: peaches and steak, long green chilli peppers and thick onion rings, juicy burgers and corn on the cob.
After my toaster oven stopped working, I took to heating up Arabic bread for lunch over the low, open flame of the gas burner on my stove, using tongs to flip it quickly and regularly to prevent it from charring or crisping unevenly.
For babaganoush and roasted bell peppers, I lay down aluminium foil to protect the stove, pierce the washed vegetables a few times with a skewer to allow the heat to escape and place them directly into the flame. For a large number of vegetables, I just slip them on to the rack beneath the broiler. I leave cooking outdoors at home to people who are better primed for such variables as unpredictable heating and climatic elements.
Just before the US went to war in Afghanistan, I began revising my childhood dream crusade, hatching an ostensibly more adult plan to tag along with an architect friend on a 40-day drive in a clunky old Mercedes-Benz built for life on the road. We would drive from Kabul to Morocco to look at minarets. Well, she'd look at the minarets; I'd study couscous. We were in college at the time. We tried unsuccessfully to win a fellowship that would fund the project. Fortunately, our professors were smarter than we were.
Operation Maiden Voyage was intended to be an examination of food patriotism. The reason I was particularly interested in north Africa was because it was the birthplace of durum wheat pasta. Libyans were responsible for the introduction of pasta to Italy during the failed Arab attempt to conquer Sicily in the late seventh century. But pasta is as undeniably Italian as Sophia Loren, whom I shall love forever for saying: "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."
Where does one culture end and the next begin? Is there room for cultural entitlement at the dinner table? Should there be? Why are Arabs feuding over the right to declare felafel a national dish? Is its authenticity determined by geography alone?
In the land of wishful thinking, the planning and preparation of meals is my primary responsibility during road trips. I still have a terrible sense of direction, despite my father's considerable efforts to activate my inner desert dweller's biological compass. I spent a good portion of my teens navigating the dusty sienna dunes of Ras Al Khaimah with him, a man whose idea of a driving lesson consisted of getting us "lost" in the desert, then challenging me to find a way out. Indeed, I can calibrate a compass and read a map, but most importantly, I can build a fire, and he taught me how.
Now if only I had a taste for s'mores.